Photo credit: Nick Vorderman
I read a lot that year because I was on the J train for the first time in my New York existence and it felt rough. Not just rougher than the L train, rough for any train. It was blessed with an exceedingly high percentage of junkies, meth heads, women that slapped their kids in front of me, men who sprayed saliva when they screamed at me, girls looking wrecked with splitting high heels and bruises on their legs. And though there are plenty of nice, friendly people on that train, my sister was peed on by a man on the J train. So yeah, rough.
It was on that train that I took stock, at 31, of my unraveled life, enjoyed the Manhattan skyline views that are the J-commuter’s consolation prize, and re-read the three women that became my lodestars. It started with Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights.
Books don’t change but they can measure the ways in which you have. Upon re-reading, I hardly recognized Sleepless Nights. For a decade it had been a private favorite, a book I rarely discussed or recommended because I didn’t know how to explain it. Now I wondered if I had ever actually read it. I had to put the book down every few pages. I could only read it on the train, never in bed where it might have smothered me. I cried openly on my commutes, probably scaring some girl new to the city. What happened to me? Was it the J train? Partially.
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I’m often nostalgic for life before context. It’s difficult to imagine reading innocently now, yet I remember being so blindingly desperate for the context. Give me the biographical details of every author! Let no building, no park, no bookstore in the city be without its historical and emotional associations!
Those days on the J train I was still technically context-less. I didn’t yet know about Hardwick’s famous and volatile marriage to Robert Lowell
, or that she founded the New York Review of Books
. I hadn’t fully entwined her with the other writers I adored, Joan Didion
and Renata Adler
. Hadn’t noted they were all primarily journalists from the 1970s who sometimes wrote novels. Hadn’t noted their ambivalent and sometimes hostile relationship to second-wave feminism. I read purely, knowing nothing about her except that the book seemed to be written for me.
I was newly separated, newly in debt, newly living in a tiny room in a house with seven other roommates. It was winter so I was wintering, in hiding, never not sick, and my grief rode me bareback through the days and nights.
I read: “Love affairs with their energy and hope do not arrive again and again forever. So, you no longer play tennis, no longer move from place to place in the summer, no longer understand what use you can make of the sight of the Andes or the columns of Luxor…Wasn’t it said about Queen Elizabeth that old age took her by surprise, like a frost?”1
My life looked nothing like I’d thought it would — case in point, I now rode the fucking J train. And I had never known that Sleepless Nights
, with its kaleidoscopic spread of lonely, disenfranchised women, was heartbreaking. Part of the book’s genius is that the sadness can escape the reader, at least until that reader has stopped escaping the devastations of life.
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“Now I begin my novel. No, now I begin my novel — and yet I cannot decide whether to call myself I or she.”2
Hardwick, Adler, Didion became saints to me — a radical approach to style both on and off the page. Also, their lyrical but rigorous sentences. It seems journalists and novelists of the 1970s were concerned with issues of first-person narration and the devious “I.” But while Tom Wolfe
and Norman Mailer
made themselves famous by imposing the “I” on journalism, Hardwick, Adler, and Didion made novels that worked conversely to make the traditional “I” disappear.
A recent re-read of Didion’s Play It As It Lays
made me think, How did she get away with this?
It’s messy and slips into melodrama (like most of Didion’s novels, which makes me love them even more). The book subverts and squirms out of every attempt to make a connection. Maria is ruthlessly unlikable, a modern Camus
-figure confronting the absurd (in this case, the abyss is Hollywood). Didion establishes the rules of the novel within the first 10 pages: multiple first-person narrators, and an omniscient third, all episodically and elliptically linked. Cacophony into a symphony. The shifting points of view keep us from attaching sympathetically to any character — writing teachers will tell you this is dangerous, as the reader may end up “not liking” anyone in the book — but it also reminds us that there is no truth in storytelling, only perspective.
goes past episodic into collage. Fragments — analytical, poetic, and personal — are grouped into chapters that speak to each other through a suppressed mood of anger and confusion. Characters are taken up and discarded, pieces of dialogue overhead and un-interpreted. The only tether is the voice, the tone one of urgent sincerity. The form is the necessary contour of the novel and — as we try to follow the broken pieces — it feels eerily similar to the narrator trying to figure out how to live in a bankrupt world.
is gloriously difficult to define — is it fiction? A memoir? A post-modern meditation on the patriarchal structure of autobiography? None of these quite work. Hardwick was married to one of the most famous poets of the 20th century, Robert Lowell, who left her after 23 years. He is considered the master of “confessionalist” poetry, though he co-opted Hardwick’s letters, her pain, their homes, arguments, and child to make those poems. Many thought Sleepless Nights
would be her rebuttal (particularly to Lowell’s collection The Dolphin
, which chronicled the affair with Caroline Blackwood
which would end his marriage to Hardwick). Instead readers found an autobiography in which the “I” is mostly silent. Lowell is a blank spot, a looming absence. Instead she collects stories of women (and a few men), producing a chorus where we expect confession. The book is steeped in women’s suffering, but also their unwitting strength.
Women are the chief concern of these writers, yet their sensibility is not traditionally feminine. They turn their pens to women who didn’t fit into the boxes of marriage, houses, children. They occupy glamorous but slightly run-down places. They are educated, hard-drinking. They live in perpetual alienation from a society that criminalizes compassion and empathy, calls it weakness, and then calls that weakness “feminine.” Each novel culminates in an off-stage abortion. This feels less a political statement than a political question. The scenes are further manifestations of the psychic dread of the 1970s, fracturing institutions (marriage, civil rights, nationalism, journalism, the novel) and the terrifying freedom that accompanies free-fall. These broken literary forms, echoing broken women. We have our freedom
, these writers are saying to the women around them, but now what do we do with it?
The women who populate these novels are urban dwellers, seeking anonymity. In an important sense, they are failures. They are divorcees or abandoned wives, bad or negligent mothers, adulteresses and mistresses, homeless and penniless, adrift but painfully self-aware. They are all women who would pray if they still believed in God.
The margins these women occupy aren’t always societal. They’re moral margins, that gray ambiguity where you don’t know what’s good or bad. They are in the antithesis of the most trusted women’s narrative, the fairy tale, where innocent girls fall into danger and rescued by men. They are women that have never been innocent, they put themselves in danger, the least of which is men, because it gives them autonomy.
Freedom. What do I do with it?
That’s what I asked myself, at Kosciusko, Flatbush, Marcy, and through the train’s inelegant crawl over the bridge. It’s what I asked myself later that year as I was up to my elbows in thesis research into Hardwick’s life, and also finishing my novel, her uncompromising, petrifying voice in my ear. It’s what I ask myself still.
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Peers, co-workers, agents I didn’t go with, editors I didn’t go with:
“You need backstory.”
“You need a new title.”
“You need her to be likable.”
“You need more love story.”
“You need more plot.”
“You need more action.”
“You need a happy ending.”
Hardwick: “If I want plot I’ll watch Dallas
. I think it’s mood. No, I mean tone. Tone arrived at by language.”3
Adler: “I don’t think much of writers in whom nothing is at risk.”4
Didion: “Style is character.”5
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Here’s what I learned by re-reading these women:
Respect your instincts. Form derives from content. Be aware of your freedoms and privileges. Find your saints. You will find your readers. Trust books that baffle you, read books way above your pay grade, not in an effort to figure them out, but in an effort to witness yourself grow.
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An excerpt of an email to a friend when I was 20 and context-less:
“Spent all day in Shakespeare & Co, literally all day, it’s pouring, hasn’t stopped raining once since I got here. I found this book that’s for reals blowing my mind, it’s the weirdest book I have ever read. The sentences are like fucking perfect, clunky but so sharp, but it’s a book of memories, kinda Proustian
actually except it’s fragmented, but it’s like linear time doesn’t exist and the memories overlap and then there’s this Billy Holiday passage. Wtf? It’s doing that thing that great art and hallucinogens do where you can actually, finally, see the world around you, like the end of blindness or waking up from sleep. It’s called Sleepless Nights, I don’t think anyone knows about it, but as I read I keep thinking, Fuck, this lady does whatever she wants!”
Hardwick, Elizabeth, Sleepless Nights
Hardwick, “Writing a Novel,” The New York Review of Books
, October 1973
“Elizabeth Hardwick, The Art of Fiction No. 87,” The Paris Review
Adler, Renata, Speedboat
Didion, Joan, “Georgia O’Keefe,” The White Album
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is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sweetbitter
is her first book.